The year 2020 saw what could be described as a seismic shift in terms of many people’s working lives. Whether employees are now working remotely full time, hybrid working, or back in the office, everyone is trying to adapt to their ‘new normal’ – and at this juncture, many are feeling fatigued with simply trying to cope.
Over the last twelve months people have been trying to handle not only the worries that come with COVID-19 itself, but also the extreme isolation and loneliness, not to mention the mental overload from being ‘always on’ digitally, and in many cases home-schooling too.
According to The Lancet, in the UK alone levels of ‘clinically significant mental distress’ had already risen by almost 10% by April 2020, compared with 2018-19 figures (18.9% to 27.3%). The Mental Health Foundation backs this up. In December, over half (54%) of the adult UK population felt anxious or worried because of the pandemic. Dr. Hans Kluge, Head of WHO – Europe, recently stated that the pandemic has meant that half of young people aged 18 to 29 are subject to depression and anxiety.
At this stage people have been dealing with anxiety for a year. While adrenaline may have helped in the early days, that will certainly be waning now – if not already gone. Undoubtedly, we will start to see the impacts of the continued levels of anxiety and the persistent surges of adrenaline affecting ourselves, our loved ones, and our colleagues.
How can an employer help when things are just so, well, personal? Certainly, there is no magic medicine. While employers should not be giving medical advice, they should endeavor to make sure that they are not adding to the pressure and uncertainty that their people may be facing. If anything, businesses should be trying to provide an anchor of stability. This is more than giving people an app for meditation or access to supporting services, it is about making sure leaders are engaging with employees in a way that gives consistency, clarity, stability, and a way to be heard.
Empathy is key
The first and most vital step in understanding how to engage with employees is taking the time to understand where they are coming from. Without taking this crucial step it is impossible to understand the workforces’ emotional needs and respond accordingly.
This means examining interactions from the employees’ perspective and ensuring that communications are easy to access and specific to them – personalized. It also means creating regular opportunities to check-in and measure wellness, so that action can be taken quickly for any areas of concern.
Of course, having mental health resources and support available goes without saying – but this will not achieve much if employees cannot access them in their preferred way. If businesses can provide such support, it needs to reach employees where they are.
In this new normal, the Digital Employee Experience, or DEX, is more important than ever. In terms of physical interactions workers have had the rug pulled from under them – almost overnight. Those team-building sessions, one-to-one chat with managers, and infamous water cooler exchanges are all part of an organization’s culture. All of a sudden, they were, in many cases, home alone. No amount of zoom calls can replace that culture. However, there are many things that a company can do to develop it virtually and to facilitate those human connections – regardless of where an employee is based.
Be it virtual coffee breaks, team building sessions that involve a virtual tour of Machu Picchu, or simply regular opportunities for employees to provide feedback – it just needs to be intentional and considered from the employees’ perspective.
Lead the conversation – truthfully
In such uncertain times, rumors and fake news are inevitable, which in turn can elevate levels of anxiety even further and impact morale. Having a DEX platform where employees know they can find the latest company information – and that they can trust that information, will go a long way to heading rumors off at the pass.
Switch off digitally
Being ‘always on’ may have had short term benefits for productivity, however, it is not sustainable. Eventually this extreme behavior will have a distinct negative impact. One way to combat this is to not just allow, but actively encourage, employees to switch off digitally.
Make mental health a priority
Senior leaders are responsible for setting the culture of a business. Making mental health a priority must be driven from the top down – asking for help should be encouraged, human connections are a necessity, and taking care of others is a must. In addition to the conversations that happen around a business on this topic, it must be replicated in the systems and support that are available. Daily wellness surveys and contact tracing solutions, for example, shows employees that an organization is taking steps to ensure their wellbeing, rather than just paying lip-service to it. This goes a huge way in building trust and loyalty.
If it affects people, it affects business
Taking care of employees is not only the right thing to do. It also affects the bottom line. Even before the pandemic Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends found 43% of respondents believed that well-being reinforces their organization’s mission and vision, 60% reported that it improves employee retention, and 61% said that it improves employee productivity and bottom-line business results. More recently the Gallup 2020 Employee Engagement and Performance Study showed a clear correlation between employee engagement and wellbeing – with top 25% engaged business units and teams benefiting from 66% improved employee wellbeing when compared with those in the bottom quartile.
This is hardly surprising – integrity and trust must be at the core of any company for it to succeed. This means making employee engagement a priority – making sure that clear, honest communications reach employees regardless of their location or device, and that all staff feel valued and listened to.
After all, employees really are the most critical element when it comes to business success and survival. Leaders should aspire to give them something certain to hold on to in a world of unknowns.